Friday, 8 January 2021

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 3

The USS Discovery has been propelled forwards to the 32nd Century as part of a move to hide important technical data that threatens their timeline. Upon arrival they discover that the galaxy is in ruins, the result of a disaster known as "the Burn" which made dilithium inert and thus destroying every ship with an active warp core at the time. The Federation has fallen from more than 350 member civilisations to a bare handful, and is facing a threat from a competing alliance known as the Emerald Chain, which believes in money, slavery and advancement through struggle, concepts the Federation left behind a millennia earlier. As the crew of the Discovery try to settle into this bleak new world, they realise their Spore Drive gives them the ability to do what no-one else has done before: to discover the origin of the Burn and help restore the Federation to its former glory.

The first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery were an exercise in frustration: superb actors, occasionally really good ideas and tremendous production values constantly being let down by spotty plotting, nonsensical scripts and character arcs that we are often told are happening but of which we see little to no evidence on-screen.

Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is, unfortunately, more of the same, although it does emerge as probably the series' strongest season by a nose. It has a terrific setup, with the Discovery and its crew emerging into a genuine brave new world and having to find out what is going on, and some superb new production design, with the Federation and non-Federation starships of the 32nd Century being a battery of impressive, intriguing ideas, such as ships made of programmable matter which can switch size and shape in an instant which feel like they've come out of an Iain M. Banks novel.

Early episodes in the season include some of Discovery's best, bolstered by promising new additions to the cast such as David Ajala as Cleveland Booker and Blu del Barrio as Adira Tal. There's some genuinely interesting worldbuilding and it turns out that removing Discovery's previously grating tendency to contradict well-established Star Trek canon allows the show to breathe freer and more enjoyably. We even get some moments of genuine character development, such as Saru hosting a dinner for his bridge crew in which we get to see how what's happened has impacted on them. Such a scene would be de rigueur on an episode of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, but Discovery has so rarely bothered with such scenes that seeing one is genuinely surprising, and welcome.

By the latter half of the season, though, the show is starting to slip backwards to type. We get a lengthy new visit to the Mirror Universe which no-one asked for or wanted, and achieves little rather than making us remember that Michelle Yeoh's character is a mass, mass-murderer who still hasn't faced justice or redemption. The show then beams her off into her own spin-off series through the most contrived means possible. The three-part season finale is a morass of murky, confused CGI, confused character motivations that seem to contradict themselves from one scene to the next and wholly unearned praise and promotions. It does prove superior to the previous season finales though, particularly when the reason for the Burn is revealed not to be completely nonsensical and a few strong ideas are treated well (such as the notion of someone who's spent their entire life on the holodeck and doesn't understand what reality is).

The series does advance a few previous annoying tics and makes them even more grating: characters burst into tears several times an episode, often for no discernible reason; the audience is asked again to care about the departure of a regular bridge crewman despite that crewman receiving virtually no prior character development and mainly being a glorified extra (Commander Nhan what now?); some regular crewmembers vanish inexplicably mid-season without a trace (where did Lt. Nilsson go?); and some brand new crewmembers suddenly show up out of nowhere and are treated as if they've always been there (who is Lt. Ina and where did she come from?).

This season also features possibly the single most inexplicable shot in the 55-year history of the entire Star Trek franchise, when a battle takes place in a turbolift and it's revealed that the turbolifts are moving around some kind of weird, other-dimensional space which is considerably larger than the entirety of Discovery itself. Previous seasons had individual shots which were like this (including one on the Enterprise in Discovery Season 2) but they could be dismissed as one-off oddities, but this was a whole, extended action sequence taking place in this utterly surreal space. I have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on in this sequence or where it was taking place, since it clearly could not be on the ship (crewmen even point at a schematic of the turbolift system in the episode and it shows ordinary narrow tubes, as you'd expect).

An additional character oddity is Sonequa Martin-Green whispering half her lines for dramatic emphasis, something I don't remember her doing in previous seasons but now does continuously, which required constant volume adjustments because everyone else is speaking perfectly normally. As an acting choice that contradicts previous characterisation, this is the weirdest I've seen on television since Littlefinger started speaking with a Batman voice in Season 3 of Game of Thrones.

Against that, Season 3 of Discovery does a fair few things right. Doug Jones' spell as captain is superb, with him investing Saru with real feeling, warmth and a continuing sense of otherworldliness. He is easily the best actor and best character on the show, and the season's focus on him is a great choice. The accomplished Anthony Rapp also has much more to do with Stamets after a low-key second season. Despite the whispering issue, Martin-Green is at her best this season and is helped by Burnham having more of a discernible, actual character arc which makes a virtue of her previous terrible choices. The revisiting of old races like the Trill and the Romulan-Vulcan alliance is well-handled. Osyraa is the best enemy the show has thrown up so far, a relatively petty empire-building villain who has unexpected depths, and makes for a reasonable bad guy (especially when she turns out to have a few laudable qualities). The season also arguably achieves its goal of really putting the Federation against the wall and interrogating its values and finding that they still hold true. The weakened Federation rejecting a chance for peace that comes with too many caveats and concessions to a mass-murderer is a politically weak move but a morally strong one, and is laudable.

The result is, yet again, a season (***½) which has a lot of strengths which make the show watchable, and a lot of grating weaknesses. After three seasons Discovery should be a lot better than this, and it's a shame it isn't. It also doesn't help that Discovery has serious competition: The Mandalorian and The Expanse are comprehensively, across-the-board much better shows, and even Discovery's own animated spin-off, Lower Decks, is cleverer and has a lot better writing. But the show is at least showing signs of progress (albeit haltingly slowly) and getting better. The show airs on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in most overseas territories.


Andy said...

You're too generous. This series is trash and I won't watch it. If Star Trek ever again delivers logical plots and characters with believable motivations I will watch it. If not, not. We're supposed to be living in an era of prestige TV, but the standard for established properties is perversely so much lower than new entries. To try and compare like to like, even The Witcher, which is deeply flawed, is a thousand times more consistent, and The Expanse and the first season of Altered Carbon are miles ahead in quality.

Anonymous said...

Sooooo I just watch the finale episode. I agree completely about the turbolifts...... Major letdown from the awesomeness of the earlier Nivar episode.